Bipartisan bill would help preserve watershed in Colo. national forest

Posted: Apr 29, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E News PM
Hermosa Creek

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) are joining forces on a bipartisan effort to help protect a pristine watershed inside the San Juan National Forest.

Bennet yesterday introduced the "Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act of 2013," S. 841, which would designate nearly 108,000 acres in the southwest Colorado national forest as the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Area and make it subject to special management conditions and protections. It is co-sponsored by fellow Colorado Sen. Mark Udall (D).

Bennet's bill is nearly identical to legislation he introduced in July to protect the Hermosa Creek Watershed, which drains portions of the 1.9-million-acre San Juan National Forest north of Durango and is prized for its stunning vistas, pristine water quality, and diverse plant and animal species (E&E Daily, July 19, 2012).

The difference this time is that Bennet's measure will have a GOP sponsor in the House, greatly enhancing the legislation's prospects for success. Tipton, whose district includes the San Juan National Forest, is expected to introduce a companion bill as early as next week, said Josh Green, a spokesman for the congressman in Washington, D.C.

"We are lucky in Colorado to be able to enjoy many of the country's most beautiful landscapes in our backyards. The Hermosa Creek Watershed represents some of the best Colorado has to offer," Bennet said in a statement. "This bill will protect this land for our outdoor recreation economy and for future generations of Coloradans and Americans to enjoy. It is the result of a local effort that took into account the varied interests of the community, and that cooperation helped us put together a strong bill with the community's input."

Supporters say the bill is rare in that it will outline the management of an entire watershed. This approach is the product of more than six years of study involving a host of local community leaders and various stakeholders who began work on the issue before Bennet was elected in 2010.

The bill would designate nearly 38,000 acres inside the watershed protection area as federal wilderness -- the highest form of public lands protection, which would mark the area off-limits to development, though it would still allow hunting, fishing and horseback riding. The rest of the watershed protection area would be open to historical uses of the landscape, including off-highway vehicle use and mountain biking.

"As one of Colorado's most scenic areas, Hermosa Creek has long been treasured by the local community and by countless visitors who have explored all that the region has to offer," Tipton said in a statement.

It was the broad local support that swayed Tipton to agree to sponsor a companion bill. The legislation is in large part based on recommendations from the Hermosa Creek River Protection Workgroup, which included local water officials, conservationists, sportsmen, mountain bikers, OHV users, local property owners and grazing permit holders.

"In response to this locally driven effort, Sen. Bennet and I have joined together to put forward legislation to, without any additional cost to taxpayers, protect and preserve this special place, and ensure that Coloradans as well as visitors to our great state have the opportunity to experience Hermosa Creek's abundant natural beauty for generations to come," Tipton said.

The Hermosa Creek special management area includes one of the largest inventoried roadless areas in Colorado and is marked by large swaths of intact old-growth forest that support a diverse range of species, including pure-strain Colorado River cutthroat trout, Canada lynx, elk, bears and deer.

The area is home to a Colorado River cutthroat trout fishery that "is one of the most important fisheries in the State" and "crucial for the long-term survival of the cutthroat trout," according to the text of Bennet's bill.

Among other things, the bill includes a provision requested by both La Plata County and the Durango City Council that would place roughly 13,000 acres of federal land in the Animas Mountain and Perins Peak area off-limits to future oil and gas development. Bennet's office said the oil and gas industry did not object.

Dick White, the mayor of Durango, praised the legislation, saying it would preserve the "historical and recreational values" of the area. And that, he said, "will contribute both to the natural amenities that attract residents and tourists to southwest Colorado and to the economic benefits that they bring."

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